By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we look to Conference USA. Now, the West division which, despite a coaching change, sees Southern Miss as the favorite.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
2) Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
3) Rice Owls
4) UTEP Miners
5) UTSA Roadrunners
6) North Texas Mean Green
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Todd Monken orchestrated quite the turnaround with this program taking them from 1-11 in 2013 to 9-5 last season. He left to take the offensive coordinator job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In steps Jay Hopson, formerly of Alcorn State. He brings his defensive coordinator from Alcorn with him in Tony Pecoraro and gets Shannon Dawson to take the offensive duties after spending last season in the same role at Kentucky. The new staff will have some good talent back including senior QB Nick Mullens who is one of the best in this conference.
Mullens threw for 4,476 yards 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while passing Brett Favre on the school’s all-time passing list for the number two spot. He’s going to have a great shot of becoming the leading passer in school history as he needs just 2,171 yards to pass Austin Davis. He’ll have to do so without his top two receivers from last year who both moved on, but the #3 guys is back in DJ Thomspon and running back Ito Smith offers good hands out of the backfield. Speaking of Smith, he had 1,128 yards rushing last season while splitting time with Jalen Richard, who also surpassed 1,000 yards. Richard is now gone and Smith will get more carries as the primary back. A veteran offensive line that returns three starters has this group looking like it’s capable of matching the 39.9 points per game it put up last season.
On defense, Pecoraro will benefit from having two starters back on the defensive line and three starters back in the secondary, but there are some big names to replace. Most notable among them is defensive back Kalan Reed, who was the Titans 7th round draft choice. The line will be led by senior tackle Dylan Bradley and sophomore defensive end Darian Yancey, who was named to the C-USA Freshman Team last season. The secondary has corner Cornell Armstrong and both safeties back including D’Nerius Antoine who led the team in tackles with 103. The big question comes at linebacker where they lose Brian Anderson, Terrick Wright and Anthony Swain (156 tackles 14.5 TFL). That group will need to grow up fast if the Eagles are going to improve on the 25.6 points and 380 yards per game they gave up last year.
The schedule is fairly favorable in conference as they avoid MTSU and WKU out of the East and get Marshall and Louisiana Tech at home. The non-conference features two SEC teams in Kentucky and LSU. The Eagles look poised to make it back to the C-USA title game once again.
Toughest Games: @ Kentucky (9/3), vs. Rice (10/1), @ LSU (10/15), vs. Marshall (10/29), vs Louisiana Tech (11/25)
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Skip Holtz’s team has had nine wins in each of the last two seasons now and have won both bowls they’ve played in. Now, entering his 4th season with the team, Holtz has a tough task ahead of him to try and topple Southern Miss, particularly considering the key losses this team has suffered on both sides of the ball.
On offense, QB Jeff Driskel moves on (49ers) after throwing for 4,033 yards and 27 touchdowns last year. This season, senior Ryan Higgins (6 starts 2013) will battle sophomore Prince Wilson, red-shirt freshman J’Mar Smith and freshman Jack Abraham for the job. The Bulldogs will be breaking in a new running back as well as bell-cow Kenneth Dixon moved on to the NFL as well (Ravens). It will be tough to replace his production as he had 19 rushing touchdowns last season. The good news is they do have both top receivers in Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson back and the offensive line brings back three starters from last year’s unit. The big question is how quickly can Holtz and OC Todd Fitch develop the QB-RB tandem.
Defensively, there’s even more holes to fill as the entire starting linebacker group is gone, along with three starters in the secondary and two starters on the defensive line. The defensive line is particularly hurt by the loss of first round draft choice Vernon Butler (Panthers) but, they do return sophomore Jaylon Ferguson who earned freshman All-America honors last year after compiling six sacks and nine tackles for loss. He’ll pair with senior tackle Aaron Brown to lead a group that allowed just 120 yards on the ground last year. La Tech will need to find linebackers quickly in order to sustain that performance. The lone returning starter in the secondary is safety Xavier Woods who has been 1st team C-USA each of the past two seasons. DC Blake Baker has some work ahead of him to keep this unit from allowing more than the 26.8 points per game they gave up last season.
The schedule isn’t as kind as Southern Miss’ as the Bulldogs draw both MTSU and WKU out of the East and have to travel to Southern Miss in the last game of the year. With games at Arkansas and Texas Tech also on the schedule, it’s hard to see them being able to get nine wins again this season, though if they pull a few road upsets they could be right in the conference race.
Toughest Games: @ Arkansas (9/3), @ Texas Tech (9/17), @ Middle Tennessee (9/24), vs. WKU (10/6), vs. Rice (10/29), @ Southern Miss (11/25)
David Bailiff has done quite the job with this program producing two 10 win seasons and four bowl eligible years while winning three of those four bowl games. The Owls just missed bowl eligibility last year starting off 4-3 before losing four straight and ending their hopes. This year, they lose their two year starting QB in Driphus Jackson and have a tough schedule so it’s going to be hard to get to bowl eligibility this season.
With Jackson departing, senior Tyler Stehling will likely step into the starting role. He’ll have an offensive line with three starters back in front of him and all four of the top running backs back from last season. Top receiver Zach Wright also returns after hauling in 39 passes for 554 yards and five touchdowns last season. Jackson was inconsistent in the passing game last season and if Stehling can be more stable, the Owls numbers can improve from last year. That’s a big question though heading into the season.
On defense the Owls look stout with three starters back on the defensive line and in the secondary, combined with two of three linebackers back as well. The guys to keep an eye on this season are linebackers Alex Lyons and Tabari McGaskey who were the top two tacklers last season and now enter their senior seasons. They combined for 128 tackles 2.5 sacks and 7.5 TFL last season and those numbers should go up. Rice had just two interceptions all of last year which was the worst in FBS, so with three starters returning in the secondary they should easily improve on that number.
The problem is the schedule that features Baylor and Stanford in the non-conference, and road games against WKU, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. Add in a home date with Florida Atlantic and that’s six possible losses right there without even considering UTEP and UTSA who Rice lost to last year. The Owls will be better, but six wins or more looks tough.
Toughest Games: @ WKU (9/1), vs. Baylor (9/16), @ Southern Miss (10/1), @ Louisiana Tech (10/29), vs. Florida Atlantic (11/5), @ Stanford (11/26)
Sean Kugler’s group wasn’t far off from bowl eligibility either last season as they were 4-5 with three games to play. They lost to Old Dominion and then fell by just two to Louisiana Tech before beating North Texas to end the year. This season, they’ll be without QB Mack Leftwich, but they did add Fresno State transfer Zach Greenlee and could contend for a bowl if things break right.
Leftwich is out for the year with an injury and right now it’s a three man competition for the starting job between Greenlee and sophomores Ryan Metz and Kavika Johnson. Whoever ends up as the starter will have four starters back from a line that allowed just 12 sacks last season and gets the return of running back Aaron Jones who missed time in each of the last two seasons due to injury. If he can stay healthy (a big if), Jones could surpass 1,000 yards on the ground. The Miners also have the top five receivers from last year back. If they can find some consistency at QB and Jones stays healthy, the Miners should easily put up bigger numbers than the 20.7 points and 342 yards per game they averaged last season. Again, those are two big ifs.
On defense, they’ll be shifting to a 3-4 under new coordinator Tom Mason, who comes over from Hawai’i. Mason will have to find a replacement for stud defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris who was third on the team in tackles last season. However, due to injuries last year, every level of the defense is more experienced with multiple guys getting experience in relief of players who were lost for the year. Mason gets back linebackers Devin Cockrell and Alvin Jones back from injuries and defensive end Nick Usher moves to OLB as a pass rusher. The secondary has three sophomores who started seven games or more last year in corners Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly and safety Michael Lewis. Despite the shift to a new system and the loss of a couple key guys, the Miners should improve on the 33 points per game they allowed last season.
The schedule is pretty favorable with the Miners avoiding MTSU, Marshall and WKU out of the East and getting Southern Miss at home. If they can win road games at Florida Atlantic and Rice, they should be in bowl contention come year’s end.
Toughest Games: @ Texas (9/10), vs. Southern Miss (9/24), @ Louisiana Tech (10/1), @ Florida Atlantic (11/12), @ Rice (11/19)
The Roadrunners will be working with a whole new coaching staff this year after Larry Coker decided to step down from the job in January. Frank Wilson takes over after spending the last several years as an assistant head coach at LSU. He brings in Frank Scelfo as the offensive coordinator (offensive assistant with Jaguars previously) and Pete Golding who was the secondary coach at Southern Miss the last two seasons. With a new coaching staff and difficult schedule, it looks like the rebuild continues here.
Scelfo will have an interesting choice at QB as last year’s top passer Dalton Sturm is back (1,354 yards 13 TD 7 INT) but the team also added Sam Houston State transfer Jared Johnson, who was the Southland Conference Player of the Year last season. Neither guy has separated themselves yet, so it will be interesting to see who starts Week 1. Whoever it is will benefit from three starters back on the offensive line and senior running back Jarveon Williams, who earned 2nd team C-USA honors with 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground last year. The top receiver is gone as tight end David Morgan moved on to the NFL (school’s first ever draft choice) but Kerry Thomas and JaBryce Taylor who finished two and three behind Morgan are back. If they can find more consistent QB play, the Roadrunners offense should be better, though they are learning a new offense.
DC Golding will be working with some key pieces back in junior defensive end Marcus Davenport (49 tackles 4 sacks 3.5 TFL), and linebackers Marcos Curry and Michael Egwuagu who combined for 136 tackles 3.5 sacks and 4.5 TFL last season. The secondary loses three starters so there’s questions to answer in that group, but the defense also adds in LSU grad transfer Ronnie Feist to the linebackers group so the cupboard certainly isn’t bare for Golding. Whether they’ll be able to cut down on the 34 points per game they allowed last season with this schedule though remains to be seen.
Toughest Games: vs. Arizona State (9/16), vs. Southern Miss (10/8), @ Rice (10/15), vs. UTEP (10/22), @ Middle Tennessee (11/5), @ Louisiana Tech (11/12), @ Texas A&M (11/19)
North Texas Mean Green
Former head coach Dan McCarney signed a contract extension through 2019 after a 9-4 season in 2013. Two years and a 4-8 and 1-11 season later and McCarney is gone. In steps Seth Littrell, who was an assistant head coach under Larry Fedora at UNC the past few seasons. Littrell brings a spread offense with new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (you may remember him running Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense as the QB for Texas Tech) and brings in co-defensive coordinators Mike Ekeler (Georgia) and Troy Reffett (Memphis) to try and turn around the program.
The first step is finding a legitimate answer at QB. There’s a potential short term answer here and a couple of longer term answers. The short term option would be Alabama transfer Alec Morris who has one season of eligibility left. The longer term ones could be any of Oklahoma State transfer Quin Shanbour (two year eligibility), sophomore Connor Means or Littrell recruit Mason Fine. whoever wins that battle will have a veteran offensive line in front of them with three starters back and Texas Tech transfer Trey Keenan. The top running back, Jeffrey Wilson, returns for his junior season following a year in which he averaged 5.4 yards per carry for 830 yards total. The receivers group is as big a question mark as the QB spot is however with four of the top five guys gone. However, with the introduction of the spread, you should expect to see increased numbers simply from the nature of that offense.
Defense was a disaster last year for this team. They allowed opponents to score 41.3 points and averaged 502.6 yards per game. While they lose two starters on the defensive line, one linebacker and one guy in the secondary, there’s really nowhere to go but up for this team. They’ll benefit from the addition of Kansas State transfer Bryce English along the defensive line and getting back corner Kenny Buyers who missed all of last season with an injury.
Rebuild is the expectation here and Littrell’s hire is a good one for the program.
Toughest Games: @ Florida (9/17), @ Rice (9/24), vs. Middle Tennessee (10/1), vs. Marshall (10/8), vs. Louisiana Tech (11/5), @ WKU (11/12), vs. Southern Miss (11/19)
Division Winner- Southern Miss
Despite bringing in a whole new coaching staff, the Golden Eagles look like the best team on this side of the conference by virtue of having the best QB, most of their offensive weapons back and a couple of key defensive starters back. They advance to the C-USA title game to face Marshall and I think they get the better of the Thundering Herd to win their first C-USA title since 2011.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.